In our painfully slow quest to "end dependence on foreign oil" — a rather narrow and nationalistic view that avoids discussion of our dependence on ALL oil — the exploitation of domestic energy sources is often painted as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. So cue strumming harps when the natural gas industry began developing the Marcellus Shale, perhaps the nation's largest deposit of natural gas, a mile deep under parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and West Virginia. Or in this case, cue the banjo.
Josh Fox (pictured above playing the banjo in front of several natural gas wells) recently released a documentary called "Gasland," an investigation into natural gas exploration inspired by an interesting offer Fox received from a natural gas company. In this award-winning and timely documentary, we learn about "fracking," the process of pumping hundreds of chemicals and millions of gallons of water into the ground at such high pressures as to pulverize layers of rock deep underground. And while industry claims that the drilling and fracturing process is entirely safe, the truth that Fox shows us is far more ambiguous and unsettling.
What we do know is that over 1,000 cases of contaminated drinking water have occurred around the country in areas affected by the fracking process. What we do know is that several water wells and even an entire house have exploded as a result of methane build-up near natural gas wells. What we do know is that it's possible for ground water to be contaminated not only by methane seeping out of well sites and into ground water, but perhaps more ominously, that it can also be contaminated by careless management of wastewater containing up to 260 chemicals used in the fracking process.
Among the many things we should but don't know, is how this chemically tainted wastewater, or "produced water," as the industry terms it, can properly be disposed of. Aside from the environmental impact of trucking millions of gallons of wastewater to treatment facilities across the country on a daily basis, we don't know if these facilities can even safely treat for chemicals and high levels of metals and minerals they were never designed to treat. And should the patchwork of widely varying state regulations be replaced by a more comprehensive and scientifically-informed national regulatory system for drilling, we don't know who is going to regulate and enforce new policies when states can barely afford to pay public school teachers.
Thankfully, the EPA recently announced a nationwide scientific study of the effects of fracking the organization hopes to carry out over the next two years. We can only hope that its findings aren't as sickening as "Gasland" suggests. And with many states, such as Pennsylvania, desperate for the immediate revenue and job creation that comes with drilling, we hope that two years isn't too long to wait.
Regardless, there is still a desperate need to overturn the "Halliburton loophole" passed during the Bush Administration and regulate fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act, as well as the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, to which the industry is currently immune. To learn more about and support legislative efforts to do just that, visit "Gasland" and support the FRAC Act, recently introduced to Congress.